Getting straight what we mean
‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’
‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean different things.’
Alice’s point is clear. If we are to understand each other, then we have to mean the same by the words we use. We can’t just use words to mean whatever we choose them to mean, as Humpty Dumpty does (or says he does) in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass (1871). Instead, we have to try to use our words as precisely and consistently as we can.
Precision and consistency with words is important everywhere – and it is particularly important in philosophy. So in the interests of precision, here is our first activity.
First, write down brief (five- to fifteen-word) definitions of what you understand these two words to mean in ordinary everyday usage:
Don’t read any further until after you’ve written down your definitions.
Now, find a dictionary. How does your dictionary define the words?
You may be wondering why I said that you should write your own definitions for these words before looking them up in a dictionary. I had at least three reasons:
- To encourage you to think for yourself, instead of just accepting what someone else says. (This is what you should always do in philosophy.)
- Because there might be differences between what you say and what your dictionary says, and these differences might be interesting.
- Because your definitions might be better than the dictionary’s! Some people think that dictionaries are always right. But they’re not. Dictionaries are written by people, and people make mistakes. (Even good dictionaries differ in the definitions they offer.)